Noah is nothing if not controversial. Director Darren Aronofsky has taken the bare bones of the Biblical story of a worldwide flood and made significant additions in terms of plot and setting. But his interpretation of the greatest apocalyptic tale ever told is not controversial for controversy’s sake. Rather, Aronofsky’s changes to the story seem to have been done with the highest of artistic intentions in mind: to provoke thought. Noah will sorely disappoint those who expect a depiction of the Genesis account in the traditional Sunday School understanding of the story. But for those who are able to respect the film for what it is, a bold and fantastic interpretation, Noah becomes a provocative cinematic experience quite unlike any other.
I will not spend time comparing the Biblical text to Aronofsky’s story other than to say that to judge Noah by its faithfulness to the factual details of Genesis is to miss the point of a film adaptation. In any adaptation of literature, liberties must and will be taken. Aronofsky and fellow screenwriter Ari Handel, in order to fully flesh out their vision of the tale, took a very loose and free approach to the transition from written word to screen. Their story remains faithful to the heart of the text (man is wicked, God sends a flood and calls the righteous Noah to save his family and the animals) and I would argue that the changes allow the thematic core of the story to be better explored in a film context.
Noah (magnificently portrayed by Russell Crowe) is the father of the lone righteous family left on an Earth ravaged by the descendants of Cain, who are led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone). Ever since the fall, and particularly since the murder of Abel by Cain (an event Noah places immense significance on), man has shunned their divine callings to brotherhood and stewardship, consumed with a lust for dominance, violence and power. Noah and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) lead their family as they wander the desolate remains of Creation, fending off bandits, caring for plant and animal life and taking in an orphaned young girl named Illa (Emma Watson). Noah is haunted by visions of a worldwide flood, and sets off to see his grandfather Methusaleh (played by Anthony Hopkins as a wise sage with powers reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets). While taking counsel with him, Noah realizes that the Creator is calling him to build an ark to survive the storm, giving Creation a new beginning and cleansing it of man’s wickedness. Miraculously provided with the tools required to build this ark, and assisted by the Watchers (fallen angels shackled to Earth for their disobedience) who seek to redeem themselves in the eyes of their Creator, Noah sets out to faithfully heed the Creator’s call, even in the face of opposition from Tubal-Cain.
Cinematography-wise, Noah is breathtaking. Aronofsky both awes with a profoundly beautiful vision of Creation in its fullest and most luscious (the depiction of the Creation story is a stunning visual achievement that left me in complete awe and wonder at the beauty and complexity of our universe), while simultaneously harrowing in its unflinching depictions of man’s wickedness and the physical desolation inflicted upon the Earth because of it. When Noah ventures into Tubal-Cain’s camp, we are horrified at the unbridled violence, lust and oppression that occurs when man’s desires are left unfettered. When Noah catches sight of himself in the darkness of depravity, Aronofsky forces us to wrestle with our own perverse desires and wicked hearts. The flood itself is disturbing, as it should be (a visual reference to Gustave Dore, men and women clinging to a large rock jutting above the waves, is beautiful in the most tragic and gut-wrenching way imaginable) for there is nothing more terrible than hearing the persistent wails and cries for mercy from the outside but being unable, by decree, to do anything to help.
But Noah does not simply provide us with imagery of both beauty and devastation, but uses it to the end of some remarkably powerful and provocative story-telling. Noah asks some of the most fundamental and difficult questions about the nature of the Creator and our own existence. Chief among them are Noah’s attempts to understand the Creator’s balance of both justice and mercy. Much has been made of the fact that Noah, while on the ark, makes the decision to fulfill the Creator’s calling to murder his own children and wipe out his own family along with the rest of humanity. Critics of this character development, however, miss the point. The Creator never commands Noah to murder his family in the film. Rather, Noah is deeply scarred by his experience in Tubal-Cain’s encampment and the recognition that sin is inherent in all humans and convinces himself that humanity as a whole needs to be wiped out, ignoring numerous signs of the Creator’s love. Noah becomes fixated on the Creator’s wrath and judgment, failing to perceive the mercy and new life that the Creator provides. The tension between God’s wrath and God’s mercy is at the heart of the Christian and Jewish traditions that hold this story dear, and Aronofsky should be commended for so powerfully bringing it to our attention.
Noah also probes many other questions fundamental to the human experience. Cain’s murder of Abel and man’s bent towards destruction (shunning the divine call to love and nurture) is a motif woven throughout the story, culminating in a potent image that places the murder before our eyes through the lens of killings throughout human history. Questions are also raised as to how man can accurately perceive the will of the Creator. Noah, for example, slips off the path intended for him due to his own misunderstandings in the midst of his earnest attempt to heed the Creator’s call. Noah pleads with the Creator to answer him in times of confusion, often ignoring answers that have already been supplied to him. Tubal-Cain struggles with the Creator as well, crying to the Heavens and imploring for an answer to his demands as the flood-waters descend, a tragic irony that will not be lost on attentive viewers.
Interestingly, Noah and Tubal-Cain both exhort others with the call to be “true men”. But their definitions of what it is to be “a man” differ drastically. Noah urges his sons to be followers of the Creator, subordinating their own desires to the will of the divine, heeding the calls to love and stewardship against all odds. Noah’s ideal man submits himself to the Creator in all aspects of life, trusting that “the Creator will provide all that we need”. Tubal-Cain, however, sees a true man as one who charts his own course, dominating and subduing the Earth and others to his own desires by sheer power of will. During one of the most subtly profound moments of the film, Tubal-Cain rallies his men to take the ark with a rousing speech, challenging them to seize their own destiny, to refuse to bow in the face of the flood. In another movie, we as the audience would cheer. But here we are horrified, for we realize that (like Lucifer in Paradise Lost) the defiance Tubal-Cain is advocating is a defiance against the Creator and his justice. Aronofsky has presented us with contrasting ethics, and the Creator’s ethic directly challenges the ethic of man.
I could continue, for Noah is a treasure trove of a film filled with profound statements and questions about things both spiritual and temporal. Noah does what cinema does at its best: provoke us aesthetically, emotionally, philosophically and morally. Aronofsky has presented us a film as challenging, provocative, and Earth-shattering as the book that inspired it, and for that reason Noah earns my highest recommendation.